The Taj Mahal can literally take your breath. Turn your back on it for a moment and the mind relinquishes belief that anything so beautiful, so majestic, could exist. Your eyes, moving down the reflecting pool towards the main gate, over the grounds to the mosque, immediately discredit the immensity of what you’ve just seen. Until, turning back again, the cupola swells above you and something constricts around your heart. The sheer beauty, the perfect symmetry, enormity of the task, the depth of the devotion that lies behind it, all catch in your throat. From the rooftop restaurants of Agra she seems two dimensional, the backdrop of a stage set or a trick of the eye. Standing next to her on a rainy monsoon morning she gleams like a saltwater pearl, winking at the passing clouds, a testament to the power and grace of the human capacity for love.
Outside a rickshaw man, all bones and sinew, white-haired, stooped and few-toothed, strains at the peddles of the cycle gears as the road slopes gently upward. 30 rupees from Agra Fort to the South Gate. Another day, another fare in 35 years of toil. 35 years that for his bones, his skin, his smile, have been more like 60. The bike slows to a crawl and he clambers down to push, leaning hard against the grips. Every step a battle. Every breath more ragged than the last. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this. Here’s the fare. Here’s extra. I’m sorry, I’m just going to walk.” He doesn’t argue. If there was emotion in my voice he is unconcerned. He merely shrugs, pockets the money and turns to find another fare. A dollar is a dollar. I’ll pay it happily not to be the load he bears, even knowing my kind of sensitivity en masse would cost him his livelihood.
Meanwhile two streets back from the tourist block surrounding the south gate, the evening market swells with shoppers. Saried shoulders jostle for mangoes, coriander, tomatoes and okra while stall holders sing out their supplies. Women trade glances and smile at the white girls amongst them. Men stare and joke. The papayas are ripe, pineapples not. Lost in the alleys a gang of 7 year olds follow taunting “hey sexy sexy! Sexy sexy!” And in final laughing triumph “you beeeeech?” Sprinting, screeching, terror delight as unafraid, unamused, I turn to face them. Is this what tourism teaches? The sport of disdain?
At night monsoon breaks over Agra in reverberating thunder crashes, forked streaks of lightning frustrated as their sprints to touch the Taj’s crown fall just shy every time. Lights go out across the tourist block and Taj is thrown into shimmering silhouetted relief against the darkness as the rain pounds down. The torrents choke the drains and the rushing swells sweep the pavements clean. On the streets below you hear whoops, shrieks, joyful hollers. On the rooftops men and boys stand nearly naked, the deluge streaming over their skin. In the distance Taj flickers in and out of view, shy, flirtatious, dancing with the lightning, twinkling at the overcast sky. Monsoon has arrived. It is the first rainfall in Agra for a year.